WASHINGTON -- And now, as Mick Jagger might say, let's hear a little sympathy for the devil:
Don Imus lost his national CBS Radio show after describing the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."
He also stirred up the sort of intriguing national argument that this country has had from time to time about hip-hop, free speech, second chances and how men treat women.
The most unusual contribution to this spirited debate comes from Margo St. James, who advocates prostitutes' rights and started COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in the 1970s. Now 69, Ms. St. James, a self-described "sex-positive feminist" who claims to have turned tricks briefly in her youth, caused quite a stir when she raised money and organized to assist San Francisco prostitutes with bail, shelters, health care and legal reforms. She's also a fan of Mr. Imus, she told me in a telephone interview.
She agrees that Mr. Imus' words were reprehensible, she said, but also thinks it is "horrible" that "everybody's dealing with the 'nappy' question, not the 'ho' question."
Instead of making Mr. Imus a scapegoat for larger sins that the hateful word "ho" represents, Ms. St. James says we should do something to reverse the extent to which "drug and prostitution prohibitions institutionalized racism" in America. "We've got to get down to what it does to women to call them whores," she said.
In her own way, Ms. St. James touches on a major reason that Mr. Imus' "ho" comment touched off the biggest firestorm of his 35 years of trash-talk radio. No other word packs so much wallop with so few letters along our society's fault lines of race, sex and privilege.
Mr. Imus' defenders argue that he shouldn't be punished while countless rap stars get away with using that word and much worse. That's a pretty feeble diversion from the question of why Mr. Imus felt compelled to use it against what he now admits was a thoroughly "inappropriate" target. What many of Mr. Imus' defenders do not know is how deeply the word "ho" divides black America.
It's a bum rap to say, as some of my e-mailers have claimed, that black people haven't protested sexism, racism and gangsterism in rap music. Students at Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women, forced the rapper Nelly to cancel a charity fundraising visit a few years ago in protest over one of his sexist music videos. C. Delores Tucker crusaded for a decade against "gangster rap," including buying stock in major record companies in order to protest at stockholders meetings.
But positive efforts like that have sadly little impact in the mainstream media or mainstream white culture. As a result, when black listeners, among others, hear the words coming back at them from the lips of a couple of white fellows such as Mr. Imus and his producer, it's like rubbing salt in our cultural wounds.
As for Mr. Imus, reports of the death of his career are undoubtedly exaggerated. He's been fired before. In the late 1970s, he returned to Cleveland radio, which he had left a few years earlier with a Cleveland Plain Dealer headline declaring, "Garbage mouth goes to Gotham." Mr. Imus worked his way back up the food chain at least once and can do it again.
The young Rutgers women have given us all an example of how to stand up for yourself with grace, courage and intelligence.
And the Rev. Al Sharpton has promised he will widen his crusade to go after other pollution on the airwaves, including hip-hop pollution. I hope he delivers.
Mr. Imus has ignited a national conversation. Let's keep it going. We have a lot to teach each other.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.